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The Evolution of the Chief Revenue Officer: A Conversation with Laura Ortman, President & CRO of Cologix

by Mason Smith on August 31, 2020 in Blog, IT

The Chief Revenue Officer role has had a swift rise in the technology sector in the last several years, but in what ways has this role evolved? How does one become a CRO, and what does the future hold for the position? For the answer to these and other questions, I recently spoke with Laura Ortman, a former manager of mine very early on in my career. Laura is now the President & CRO of Cologix Inc, a network-neutral interconnection, ecosystem and hyperscale edge data center company with 34 data centers across 10 strategic North American markets. This interview provided a great opportunity for us to re-connect and share insights we’ve gained over the years.

Mason Smith: Laura, it’s great to speak with you again. Your background gets more impressive each time we talk. Can you tell me what journey to the CRO role was like?

Laura Ortman: Academically, I studied marketing in undergrad and then earned an MBA in Information Systems. My career began in sales and account management in technology companies. From there I moved into several areas, including software development, global technical support, and global customer experience. Then I had a wonderful opportunity to lead a renewals and revenue team for a cloud services business where I was tasked with driving revenue growth across customer experience, sales, and product development. Later, I became a Chief Customer Officer. All along, I’ve always focused on customer relationships, retention, and growth.

Mason: It sounds like those experiences made you a great candidate for a CRO position.

Laura: Definitely. My role today really encompasses everything that I had been doing throughout my career across sales, marketing, go-to market, product, customer experience, and technology. Being engaged in all those areas prior to becoming a CRO prepped me for the position.

Mason: Is that a common path to the CRO position?

Laura: The position is still transforming and growing across the industry, and a lot of companies are looking at the CRO as a new addition to their executive team. While many of my peers have grown out of a sales, marketing, and customer experience background like myself, there is a mix of other backgrounds in the role.

Mason: How has the CRO evolved over the years, especially in the technology sector?

Laura: The role started as a sales executive role, but over the last 10 years it’s become so much more. Modern CROs need to understand all aspects of go-to-market strategy and customer success. They need that key alignment across sales, marketing, customer experience, and product. Some companies will define the CRO responsibilities differently. For example, I have the opportunity to drive the product roadmap and technology in my role, and that helps me drive alignment across the team, break down silos, and take a holistic approach. Ultimately, today’s CROs are focused on generating and retaining revenue across multiple avenues with a long-term perspective.

Mason: What does the future of the CRO role look like?

Laura: While the role keeps evolving, it will continue to have a focus on deepening customer relationships and looking at the end-to-end customer experience and lifecycle. I believe we’ll also see more CROs take on product development and drive the product roadmap. They’ll still focus on revenue generating activities, but they’ll really have that alignment across customer success and product development.

Mason: What are the biggest challenges CROs in technology face?

Laura: Not only are CROs tasked with generating revenue, but they have to identify and manage risks that impact revenue. That requires working closely with other executives like the CFO. There’s more education needed on CRO roles and how to successfully partner with a CRO for true cross-functional alignment. Some organizations have that down, and in others where the role is new, there may be confusion over which executive has responsibility for a certain initiative. Lastly, prioritization of revenue optimization and generation can be a challenge because there are many activities that have the potential to drive revenue growth.

Mason: What’s the relationship like between CROs and CFOs?

Laura: For successful companies in the IT industry, the relationship and alignment between the two roles needs to be very strong. When I look at revenue optimization and generation in my career, I work in partnership with the CFO. I’m getting their guidance and support, and collaboration is very important in order to discover new ideas and different ways to look at the growth of a company. Of course, the CRO role is still fairly new to many companies, so that partnership can be an adjustment for some, but usually the relationship works out well.

Mason: How has COVID-19 shifted your strategy as a CRO?

Laura: From a company standpoint, we quickly had to shift our strategy for this year and make sure that the health and safety of our employees and customers is our number one priority, driving any decision we make. Then, as a CRO, I’m tasked with aligning our go-to-market strategy with the shifting of customer buying patterns that we’re seeing. For example, we’ve put special programs in place to support our healthcare and education customers through COVID-19. They’re facing unique challenges right now, so we’re adapting with them to provide the best possible customer experience when they need it most.

Mason: What are traits of great CROs and sales leaders? Are the traits the same?

Laura: When I think of great sales leaders who I have had the opportunity to work with and for, their top trait is that they are driven to succeed and deliver. As great coaches, they’re leading a team, motivating and inspiring them, and able to hold them accountable. They also need strong customer-facing skills so they can tell a story and build relationships with customers. All of the above traits apply to CROs as well, but I would also add that they need the ability to collaborate across functions, build high-performing teams, and maintain a customer-centric mentality.

Mason: What advice would you give to salespeople who want to become CROs?

Laura: Everyone’s path is different. Take any opportunity to learn about other aspects of the business you’re in, especially as it pertains to go-to-market strategy. Gaining insight across customer experience, customer success teams, marketing, product, and solution engineering and architecture will provide a big boost as well. Any experience obtained at the executive level, especially through mentorships, is important, because leadership skills are applied every day in the CRO role.

Mason: How do sales trends in the technology industry differ from other industries?

Laura: This is a very fast-paced industry that evolves more rapidly than others, so it provides endless opportunities for selling innovative technology solutions and products. It can be a challenge, but it’s exciting to be part of that growth and have a great number of learning opportunities. While great sales leaders in every industry are thinking about the challenges their customers are facing and how those challenges can be solved, in IT, solutions-based selling is happening on another level.

Mason: Are there any prominent CROs or sales leaders who inspire you?

Laura: I draw the most inspiration from leaders I have had the opportunity to work with and learn from directly. Two stand out in my mind. The former President & COO of VMware, Carl Eschenbach, was one of the best sales leaders I’ve worked with in my career. He’s a very inspiring and motivational individual, and he really understands technology and customer relationships while maintaining an employee focus. Scott Bajtos, former Chief Customer Officer at VMware, who I worked with at VMware for over 9 years, has been a mentor of mine and an inspirational leader to so many. As a Chief Customer Officer, he has a great sales and go-to-market background with an unrivaled customer-centric mentality that drives customers for life.

Mason: Can you share some of your best practices for hiring talent?

Laura: Certainly. Today, I hire talent in sales, marketing, business development, product development and engineering, customer success, technical support, business analysis, and solution engineering. For any of these roles, culture fit is the most important thing to look for. Then, an ability to build and deepen customer relationships is key. I also look for people who excel at problem-solving, collaborate, and are focused on goals and driving results. The ambition to succeed is an important trait to look for, as is making sure a candidate has the ability to listen to customers.

Mason: Has hiring changed during 2020?

Laura: From an industry perspective, given how technology is being relied upon more than ever during COVID-19, hiring has not slowed down. Interviews have moved to video, and that provides a different perspective on talent. With so much remote work happening now, our talent pool has opened up as we look at candidates in locations where we weren’t recruiting before.

Mason: When companies create a brand-new CRO role, are they recruiting externally or promoting from within?

Laura: That’s a great question. It’s really a mix of both, usually depending on the size of the company. If we’re looking at a 20,000-employee company that has a Chief Sales Officer or a Regional President, then one of those individuals might be promoted. Smaller companies are more likely to look for outside talent for newer roles like the CRO position.

Mason: This has been a great conversation. I really appreciate your insight and enjoyed our time together. Thank you for speaking with me.

Laura: Thanks for the time, Mason, and I look forward to talking with you again soon.

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